SILVIO Berlusconi has provoked outrage by saying on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that Benito Mussolini did some good for Italy.
Speaking on the sidelines at a ceremony to mark the sombre occasion, the former Italian PM even defended the fascist dictator's support of Adolf Hitler, saying Mussolini probably made an alliance with the Nazis because he feared Germany's potential expansion.
Mr Berlusconi said that Italy did not have "the same responsibilities" as Germany for the Holocaust because, at the beginning of the relationship, Italy "was not completely aware".
"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Mr Berlusconi.
"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it.
"As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."
The Italian Union of Jewish Communities and leaders across the political spectrum immediately condemned Mr Berlusconi's remarks, made at the ceremony in Milan.
"The comments are not only superficial and inappropriate but are designed to leave the impression Italy decided to persecute and exterminate its own Jews to please a powerful ally," said Renzo Gattegna, the union's president.
In 1938, Mussolini's regime passed laws banning Jews from universities and taking many professions.
Italian Jews were interred in concentration camps. When the regime capitulated to the Allies, thousands were rounded up by the Nazis and deported to Auschwitz and other death camps.
More than 7,000 are believed to have perished. Mr Gattegna stressed that these racist laws and persecutions were introduced before the war by a fascist regime that was "a willing and aware accomplice of Nazi Germany".
Dario Franceschini, who heads the centre-Left Democratic Party in the lower house of parliament, and the party's Senate leader, Anna Finocchiaro, also attacked the former premier.
"Berlusconi's words are a shame and an insult to history and remembrance," Mr Franceschini said.
Mussolini, who ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943, is often remembered for his ambitious public works programme, including the construction of roads, railways, monuments and government buildings.
He and his mistress, Clara Petacci ,were captured and executed by communist partisans in April 1945 near Lake Como. (© Daily Telegraph, London)